Upstream & Blueprint Connections

“So often we find ourselves reacting to problems, putting out fires, dealing with emergencies.  We should shift our attention to preventing them.”

~ Dan Heath, Upstream

How many times do we find ourselves in reactionary mode?  Putting out fires and reacting to situations instead of preventing them from happening in the first place?  Dealing with emergencies and never getting around to fixing or putting in place the systems that caused the problems?  In Dan Heath’s book, Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen, he talks about upstream vs. downstream actions.  Downstream actions react to problems once they’ve occurred while upstream efforts aim to prevent those problems from happening.  

Heath suggests that there tend to be three forces that push us downstream:  1) problem blindness, 2) lack of ownership, and 3) tunneling.  

  1. Problem blindness means that people don’t see the problem or the problem seems inevitable and negative outcomes are natural.  In other words, “that’s just the way things are around here.”  It’s the mindset that problems are treated like the weather, like it or not, that’s the way it is and the best thing we can do is just accept it.  When we have problem blindness, we miss potential solutions that are sitting right before our eyes.  
  2. Lack of ownership is where individuals feel that “it’s not my problem to solve/fix” and since nobody takes responsibility for a problem, the problem remains unsolved.
  3. Tunneling – “I can’t deal with that right now” might be something that would be heard or thought of when tunneling is occurring.  When we have a lot of problems to solve, we give up trying to solve all of them to focus on solving the ones that are the most tangible – which tend to be short-term and reactive.  In the language of Stephen Covey, this is a lot like focusing on the urgent at the expense of the important.  Eventually, of course, all problems become urgent.  And by that time, it’s almost always too late to solve the most important problems.

In thinking about the forces that push us downstream, what connections might you make between systems thinking and upstream efforts?  The theme for this year’s Blueprint Bulletin is around Upstream thinking.  Each edition will focus on one of Heath’s seven questions for Upstream leaders and where the Blueprint Connections, Leaders’ Corner, and Teachers’ Corner sections may confirm your thinking and give you some additional food-for-thought and potential actions.

Blueprint Connections

“Systems Thinkers shape a worldview based on the realization of interconnectedness.” 

~ Pearl Zhu

Dan Heath uses Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) improved graduation rates as an example in his book.  CPS’ graduation rate was 52% in 1997.  By shifting to upstream thinking, eliminating problem blindness, taking ownership for the problem, and putting systems in place, by 2018, their graduation rate increased to 78%.  Let’s unpack what CPS did to improve their graduation rate.  They used a systems approach that focused on the interconnectedness of systems, processes, and people.  When thinking about systems and using a problem-solving approach, CPS determined that their system did not adequately prepare students for transitioning from a K-8 environment to the demands of high school, in other words, they identified that it was not just a high school problem.  The district used two metrics which, when successful, predicted with 80% accuracy, students would graduate vs. dropping out.  These two metrics are:  1) a student’s completion of five full-year course credits, and 2) that a student is not failing more than one semester of a core course, such as math or English.  These combined metrics became known as Freshman On-Track.  In other words, freshmen who were on-track by these metrics were 3.5 times more likely to graduate than students who were off track. 

Watch a short video about CPS’ shift to upstream thinking. 

How might the Blueprint, a systems-based framework, support your upstream efforts?  Collaborative Routines, Improvement Cycles, Talent Management, Student Support, and Collective Responsibility are some of the systems and routines that CPS leveraged to ensure that students are on-track to graduate.  CPS moved their best teachers to 9th grade (talent management). They reviewed their policies and procedures as it relates to student support and revised their suspension policy to a focus on restorative practices and social-emotional needs of students (student support).  CPS also leveraged Collective Responsibility with the mantra and belief that, “It is my job to make sure all students succeed in my class” as well as created Freshman Success Teams (Collaborative Routines).  They tracked the Freshmen On-Track data to monitor progress and modify their processes (Improvement Cycles). In other words, Chicago Public Schools developed a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people that worked together to improve the graduation rate. CPS addressed their systems and focused on continuous improvement.  They set their course, measured progress, gathered feedback, and adjusted course as necessary.  In the end, CPS moved upstream to significantly reduce the dropout problem by focusing on the Freshmen On-Track metrics.  They focused on the interconnectedness of systems.  As you begin to shift to Upstream thinking, what systems and routines might you leverage to support you?

Leader’s Corner

“Upstream efforts are those intended to prevent problems before they happen or reduce the harm caused by those problems.”

~ Dan Heath

Let’s consider the difference between upstream and downstream actions. Downstream actions are easier to see and easier to measure.  Upstream actions work towards preventing problems and/or reducing the impact of those problems; these actions are, however, more ambiguous and involve systems thinking.  With that being said, let’s explore how to move towards upstream thinking and address the three barriers that may get in your way.

  1. Problem Blindness is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable. Some Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) leaders had problem blindness regarding their dropout and graduation rates with the mindset, “It’s regrettable, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”  Do you think your district/school suffers from problem blindness? If so, in what areas?  How might you support your district/school in addressing problem blindness?
  2. With Tunneling, people are so accustomed to reacting to problems—and working around them—that they never get around to fixing them. Surely we can all relate to this. Why do you think tunneling is such a powerful trap? Why isn’t it more natural to step out of the tunnel and engage in systems thinking?  How might Covid be causing tunneling right now for your district, schools, parents, students, and community?
  3. A Lack of Ownership means that the parties who are capable of addressing a problem are saying, “That’s not mine to fix.”  Chicago Public Schools’ leaders made the graduation rate their problem.  They took ownership.  Have you ever been part of a group that took ownership of a problem that they hadn’t created?  How did that sense of “owning” the problem change the way they approached it? 

In better understanding the three key barriers to upstream thinking, consider a problem that you’re concerned about as it relates to your district, school, or family. In the context of that problem, which one of those three barriers has been the hardest to overcome?  How might you support your district/school in addressing problem blindness, tunneling, and lack of ownership to move upstream?

Teacher’s Corner

“When you spend years responding to problems, you can sometimes overlook the fact that you could be preventing them.”

~ Dan Heath

In Chapter 1 of Dan Heath’s book, Upstream – How to Solve Problems Before They Happen, he writes about being fascinated by how upstream efforts reflect humanity at its best and worst. Heath sees going upstream as a declaration of agency: “I don’t have to be at the mercy of these forces — I can control them. I can shape my world.”  This declaration of agency is an example of self-efficacy.  Now let’s take this a step further.  Let’s gather a group of teachers that are confident in their abilities to guide students to success.  The teachers meet regularly to engage in teacher collaborative routines. These practices help teachers gain knowledge and expertise from their peers, moving them closer to collective teacher efficacy. The research of John Hattie and his team determined that collective teacher efficacy, with an effect size of 1.57, is the number one influence on student achievement.  Now, instead of relying on the herculean efforts of individual teachers, there is a group of like-minded teachers collectively moving upstream.  This group seeks to prevent problems before they happen or reduce the harm caused by the problems. 

So what are the actionable steps needed to achieve this goal?  According to Heath, it’s important to overcome the barrier of problem blindness. This is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable.  “As a teacher, if you accept that your job is to support students, not appraise them, it changes everything.” It’s vital that educators approach collaboration and teaching with a growth mindset. If they are unsure of how to reach a particular student, they can consult their colleagues for suggestions or advice.  Teaching is a learning experience. Carol Dweck suggests that educators begin by acting on their answers to some questions: “What can I do to unleash this student’s motivation?  What does this student not understand that is preventing them from learning?”  

A second barrier to upstream efforts is a lack of ownership.  Heath writes that a lack of ownership means that the parties who are capable of addressing a problem are saying, “That’s not mine to fix.”  Teacher collaborative teams that are composed of upstream thinkers take responsibility for fixing the problems.  By focusing on their collective efforts they are able to avoid the third barrier of tunneling.  Tunneling confines teachers to short-term, reactive thinking which means oftentimes putting a band-aid on the problem and pushing it down the road.  Heath says that in order to escape the tunnel you need slack.  “Slack, in this context, means a reserve of time or resources that can be spent on problem solving.”  This is why it’s important to have scheduled time, norms, and protocols for collaboration time.  As John Hattie states in his 2013 book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, “Accomplishing the maximum impact on student learning depends on teams of teachers working together, with excellent leaders or coaches, agreeing on worthwhile outcomes, setting high expectations, knowing the students’ starting point and desired success in learning, seeking evidence continually about their impact on all students, modifying their teaching in light of this evaluation, and joining in the success of truly making a difference to student outcomes.”  It is time to shift our energies upstream!

Professional Learning

SWFT Online interactive courses, Winter I Term, are quickly approaching and begin on November 18.  New and updated courses focus on Educational Improvement Through Systems and Teacher Collaborative Routines (TCR).  Browse the professional learning calendar for courses that may interest you and/or your district’s goals. To register, click Events Registration

Preview of SWFT Online Learning Courses

New courses this year:

  • Educational Improvement Through Systems course will address a variety of ideas around how systems in classrooms, schools, and districts support continuous improvement. This course is designed to help you learn about systems by examining a case study and looking at examples of systems from your daily life and your experiences in schools.
  • Teacher Collaborative Routines (TCR) replaces TCR Floors 1, 2, and 3.  This updated course consists of several modules designed to develop a theoretical understanding of each practice of teacher collaborative routines as defined in the Blueprint Framework’s Evidence of Practice. This course provides not only the research supporting collaborative best practices, it also provides practical support and examples that will enable teachers to move from theory to impactful and sustainable collaborative routines.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 – Leadership Team Networking Event!! More details to come.

As you delve deeper into Upstream thinking, continue to ask yourself how you might avoid the three barriers?  How might you design your systems and routines to be proactive instead of reactive and move upstream?  What shifts in thinking and resources might need to be in place?

“Dan Heath says If You Want Different Outcomes, Change the System.” Washington Speakers Bureau, 18 Feb. 2020,

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 2006)

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Heath, D. (2020). Upstream: The quest to solve problems before they happen. New York: Avid Reader Press.

Contact Us
Our goal is to meet your needs. If there’s specific information that you believe you and others would benefit from learning about, please communicate those wishes to your SWFT facilitator or email Lynn Batchelder, Coordinator of Professional Learning,

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